July 2006

Maureen McClarnon

fiction

The Keep by Jennifer Egan

The Keep is easily the best book I’ve read all year. Actually, allow me one small qualification: it’s the best if one disregards the last section, but more on that later.

One of The Keep’s most appealing aspects is that it’s a smart book that’s not trying to clobber you over the head with its cleverness. The problem with clobbering cleverness is that I not only feel clobbered, but also cheated out of a couple hours of my life as well. (Ali Smith, I’m talking to you.) Egan does a nice job of layering narratives and toying with the reader as to which story is the überstory, so to speak. Oh, and some reviewer, somewhere, is going to refer to it as “Kafkaesque;” I am as certain of that as I am that antifreeze runs through Dick Cheney’s arteries.

The publisher’s blurb says the two main characters, Danny and Howie, are “bonded by a childhood prank whose devastating consequences changed both their lives.” One, that sounds like they were in the movie River’s Edge or something; two, I hate book-jacket hint-dropping, because I spend all of my reading time trying to figure out what it is and waiting for the author to spill the beans; three, the statement isn’t quite accurate; four, is “whose” the correct pronoun for a prank? Egan gives it up within 17 pages: Danny, in an attempt to be cool in front of an older cousin, sells out friend and cousin Howie and, oops!, almost kills him. Howie goes from a D&D-playing fatty nerd to reform school j.d., while Danny becomes the perfect son. Is that a bond? They don’t speak again for 20 or so years until the now wildly successful Howard (Howie is long gone) sends Danny a ticket to some mysteriously-named East-European country where he’s renovating an 800-year-old castle into a high-concept hotel -- so could Danny maybe just pop on over to help?

Danny sure could, but he has to pack a portable satellite dish first so he won’t miss any important calls while he’s gone. Danny, Danny… While Howie was transforming into Howard, the handsome guy who Has It All, Danny cultivated his gift for getting close to people in power -- and then really pissing them off so that leaving the country to visit with a cousin he almost killed seemed like a godsend. Danny complains that, after 18 years in New York, he can walk down Lower Broadway and recognize every face without actually knowing anyone, and feels compelled to greet them; he can’t afford to be rude, really, when his entire life is about connections. (What he’s trying to say is: Girls would turn the color of an avocado/When he drove down the street in his El Dorado.)

So this castle has… a Keep, which the castle’s ancient-and-magical-realistic heiress is using as a fortress against Howard and Co. And it has ghosts of drowned twins in a courtyard pool. There’s a scene in which Danny, sure that Howard is trying to kill him by getting into his brain, goes down to the gingerbread-perfect village, inhabited by happy people with whom he has linguistic difficulties. Danny has a sucking head wound, so he’s all bandaged up, and is wearing one of his Lucky Hipster Boots that he bought as a freshman at NYU, and one sandal with a sock; he did not want to wear the sock, as he had great fashion misgivings about the sandal-sock combo, but he cared even less for the sensation of things touching his bare foot.

At the outset, the book seems to be Danny’s story, but then we find out that, no!, this campfire story is in fact the product of a prison writing class, and the author, who claims to be recounting a story someone told him, seems to have a lot of empathy for Danny -- and writing talent, too. So we get bits of the author’s prison life mixed in with the initial narrative.

Then the book has this excellent ending, but what’s with all of those extra pages? What, an entire extra section? Well, I can see why Egan put it there, but I don’t think it was necessary, or that it made the book stronger; the last section is there to tie up some loose narrative ends that could have been left dangling. If the reader has fully bought in to the whole willing suspension of disbelief package for the duration of the book, why burst the bubble? It’s like a horror movie that goes to black and you think it’s done, you hope they aren’t going to tack any stupid little not-really-dead bits onto it, but of course they do.

Definitely read the book. You have been warned about the last section, so read it or not; thanks to this timely warning, you have the option of stopping at the good ending. But knowing you, you’ll press on to judge for yourself.

The Keep by Jennifer Egan
Knopf
ISBN: 1400043921
256 pages